“Rebuilding” in sports is usually a long, painful process and the Hurricanes have seemingly been stuck in one for the last four years or so. It wasn’t planned for it to end up like this, but the reality is that the Hurricanes have finished out of the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons and there have been indications of changes being ahead this off-season. Most of these changes will likely start in the front office and the coaching staff, but the make-up of this team could also be different over the next few months. The Hurricanes expensive core will make it difficult for there to be any significant moves, but the new regime is going to have to look at everyone on the roster and ask themselves if they can build a winner out of any of the pieces here.
One player who will probably stay regardless is defenseman Justin Faulk, who signed a six-year extension a couple weeks ago. Faulk has been seen as the center-piece of the Hurricanes defense corps for awhile now and he has had to do a lot of learning on the fly. He was only 19-years-old when he first came into the league and played over 20 minutes a night in his rookie season. His workload hasn’t gotten any smaller either, as he has been the Hurricanes defenseman on their depth chart over the last couple of years. He is used in all situations and most who watch him have had nothing but good things to say about his potential. Until recently, that is.
Faulk’s play has been under scrutiny since the Olympic Break, as he has noticeably struggled on the ice and has made some mistakes that Carolina fans aren’t used to seeing from him. Any defenseman who logs the minutes that he does is going to have a few slip-ups, so I usually don’t put too much thought into those but it seems like there’s a nightly discussion of how he’s “hit a wall” as of late. Is this true, or are his struggles overblown? The Hurricanes coaching staff seems to think that he’s struggling because he has played fewer minutes in recent games and given some incredibly sheltered minutes in Saturday night’s loss to the New Jersey Devils.
There’s no doubt that Faulk will be a key part of the rebuild, but the Hurricanes need to ask themselves if he is the type of player who you can build your defense corps around. He’s a #1 on the Hurricanes, but where would he rank on a contending team? How does he stack up against other top-pairing defensemen across the league? These are questions the Hurricanes need to think about heading into this summer after the jump, we’ll dive into them and take a closer look at Faulk’s recent struggles.
As far as Faulk’s recent struggles go, I think they are a tad overstated. Everyone points to the Olympic Break as where things began to go south for him. Yet, he has been a positive player in terms of shot differential and has been on the ice for 11 opposing goals over the 15 post-Olympic Break games. The Hurricanes have been on the right side of the shot battle when Faulk is on the ice for most of the year, which means that he is probably doing more good than harm to the team. Unfortunately, he has also possessed a negative goal differential for most of the season and it’s been that way since around Game 11.
The Hurricanes have been a positive possession team and generally outshoot their opponents when Faulk is on the ice, but it hasn’t translated to a lot in terms of goals for whatever reason. It’s strange when you consider that Faulk’s defense partner, Andrej Sekera, has identical possession numbers and a positive 5v5 goal differential. This tends to happen to a lot of players, though so I wouldn’t put a lot of concern into this or Faulk’s recent “slump” because the Hurricanes generally fare well with him on the ice. The negative goal differential is likely the result of Faulk making untimely mistakes (which have happened) or for reasons beyond his control (which also have happened).
How does Faulk compare to the rest of the league, though. Using data from Extra Skater, I looked at every defenseman in the league who plays an average of 20 minutes a game and compared their numbers to Faulk’s to see where he ranks among the pack. There’s a lot of ways to go about this because there isn’t one way to statistically quantify how good a defenseman is, but one way to tell how good of a job they are doing is looking at how many shots their team’s create & give up while they are on the ice.
Going by this the Hurricanes top pairing of Faulk & Sekera is on the slightly more offensive side of the spectrum. The Hurricanes produce about 20 5v5 shot attempts per 20 minutes while they are on the ice while giving up about 19. Their numbers are comparable to the likes of Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Mark Methot, Dan Boyle & Keith Yandle, all of whom are at least top-four defensemen but more known for their offense than their shutdown ability. This isn’t bad company for Faulk (and Sekera) to bein because it shows that they would be a great second defense pairing on a good team and an okay first defense pairing. However, it also indicates that they might be relied on to much.
For most of the year, Muller has used these two against other team’s top lines and while they might be doing fine in terms of possession, the Hurricanes are still giving up a lot of shots when they are on the ice. It’s also worth noting that almost everyone in a similar class (Bieksa, Edler, Boyle, Yandle, etc.) aren’t their respective team’s shutdown defensemen. There’s nothing wrong with using an offensive minded defenseman in this role, but are Faulk & Sekera the ideal pairing for this job? To shed some light on this, let’s look at how defensemen used in similar situations have fared.
We’re left with a similar grouping when looking at how many shots each team gives up with a certain defenseman on the ice. Marc Methot and Dan Boyle make another appearance and other defensemen in Faulk’s vicinity also include Zach Bogosian, Mark Streit and Erik Karlsson. The last one being very surprising, but from a defensive standpoint, Karlsson has started a similar amount of shifts in the defensive zone and the Senators have given up roughly amount of shots as the Hurricanes do when Faulk is on the ice.
Going from purely a territorial standpoint, Faulk outperforms a lot of his peers and looks very favorable compared to defensemen who are used in similar situations. Most of that is due to his offense, though. The Hurricanes average about 20 shot attempts for every 20 minutes that Faulk is on the ice, so that gives him a boost over some of the players who are mainly relied on to shutdown the opposition. Some of that probably has to do with him being used with the Hurricanes best offensive players, too.
Faulk’s development seems like it could go either way at this point. He was forced into a shutdown roel and has adapted fairly well to it, but he has the skillset to be an effective offensive defenseman too. We have all seen how well he skates, how good his shot is and how he likes to join the rush when he can. It seems like that’s been reined back a bit since his rookie season and the role he has been forced to play probably has a little to do with it. He’s only 22 years old, so there’s plenty of room for him to develop, but I guess the Hurricanes need to decide if Faulk can be a “do-it-all” type defenseman or if they need to find someone else to help take the burden off Faulk to make it easier for him to show his offensive upside. They at least have Andrej Sekera locked up for next year, but Ron Hainsey and Brett Bellemore are UFAs and it’s tough to say that either John-Michael Liles or Ryan Murphy can be top-four defensemen going forward.
Either way, Faulk is still very young and already a damn good defenseman, so he will likely be part of the equation going forward. Whether or not he can be a #1 remains to be seen, though so the Hurricanes just need to build a good supporting cast around him.